Tempeh vs. Tofu: Which Is More Environmentally Friendly?

How do these soy proteins stack up compared to other vegan and non-vegan sources?

Tofu and tempeh background.
eskymaks / Getty Images

From mycoprotein filets to pea protein smoothies, vegans today have a veritable cornucopia of protein choices. For centuries, tempeh and tofu have been two soy-based stalwarts of vegetable protein in Asia. They gained popularity in the West over the last 70 years.

As concerns rise over soy production, which is linked to deforestation and habitat loss in some of the world’s most biodiverse regions, vegans may wonder if their food choices are helping or harming the planet.

Here, we review the differences between tofu and tempeh, and learn how their environmental impacts compare to other vegetable and animal proteins.

What Is Tempeh? 

Close-up of tempeh on cutting board with kitchen knife with other ingredients on table. Preparing a vegan dish in kitchen.

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The lesser-known of these two soy-based proteins, tempeh is native to Indonesia. Its distinct nutty taste comes from whole soybeans that are peeled, soaked, and fermented with a fungus, then compressed into a patty, giving it a hearty, chewy texture. 

Some tempeh varieties add grains and seeds like rice, millet, barley, quinoa, and flax, giving additional mouthfeel and nutritional content. Tempeh is a complete protein and contains more potassium, protein, and fatty acids than tofu.

What Is Tofu? 

Cutting tofu on a wooden cutting board

by [D.Jiang] / Getty Images

Unlike tempeh, tofu has a mild, neutral taste that tends to take on whatever flavors surround it. This 2,000-year-old Chinese food is made from soy milk, which is consolidated into blocks in a process similar to cheese making: The soybeans are cooked, ground up, and mixed with a thickening agent (usually calcium or magnesium). Because of this coagulation, tofu is considered a more processed food than tempeh. 

It is available in various textures, including extra firm, firm, soft, and silken, making it ideal for many culinary uses. Like tempeh, tofu provides a complete protein, contains zero cholesterol, and is low in saturated fat. 

Is Soy Protein Sustainable?

For the last decade or so, headlines worldwide have decried the environmental impacts of soy. And it’s true: soybean cultivation does play a role in deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions.

Because Brazil is the largest soybean producer, Amazonian forests are estimated to have already lost 20% of their natural vegetation due to soy fields and cattle pastures. Yet tofu and tempeh products are largely not to blame. Approximately 75% of global soy production is used to feed animals that are then slaughtered and eaten, while only 5% of all soy production goes directly to human consumption.

A large 2018 meta-analysis examining the environmental impacts of around 38,000 farms across the globe found that even the lowest-impact animal products have a more significant environmental impact than their vegetable counterparts. Tofu has lower greenhouse gas emissions and land use than any animal protein. Nuts, other beans, lentils, and peas rank lower than tofu. 

In terms of water consumption, agriculture at large is responsible for 92% of the global water footprint. Grains have the most prominent water footprint at 27%, followed closely by meat at 22%. Considering water consumed per gram of protein, pulses like lentils, peas, and beans use less water compared to eggs, milk, or chicken.

The Verdict

Because both tempeh and tofu come from soy, they have nearly identical environmental impacts.

The most significant greenhouse gas emissions for tempeh happen during processing. Research indicates that traditional processing methods use less energy and emit fewer greenhouse gasses than more modern productions methods. Because some tempeh brands incorporate grains like rice or barley, these more energy- and resource-intense cereals must be added to tempeh's overall carbon footprint. Still, relative to any animal product, those additional impacts remain negligible given the nutrient density of tempeh. 

Even considering manufacturing, packaging, and transportation, tofu still generates relatively few greenhouse gas emissions. Only 16% of that total impact comes from soybean production; like tempeh, the bulk of emissions happen during manufacturing.

So which is best? That's at the discretion of the chef. Each soy protein has its unique flavor profile and mouthfeel. Either way, vegans can enjoy either tempeh or tofu without feeling like climate hypocrites.

Frequently Asked Questions
  • Which is less processed: tofu or tempeh?

    Technically speaking, tofu is more processed than tempeh because it is mixed with a coagulant like calcium or magnesium to unify the bean curds. Relative to other vegan protein sources, however, tofu is closer to a whole food than many other options.

  • Does tempeh or tofu taste better?

    That depends on you! If you’re looking for an easy meat texture replacement, tempeh does the trick. But if you’re looking to masquerade your protein in a chocolate mousse, silken tofu is the way to go.

  • Is tempeh easier to digest than tofu?

    Because tempeh is fermented, it can be easier to digest than tofu.

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